Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Aurelius, Marcus
Aurelius, Marcus, emperor, A.D. 161‒180. The policy adopted by Marcus Aurelius towards the Christian church cannot be separated from the education which led him to embrace Stoicism, and the long training which he had, after he had attracted the notice of Hadrian and been adopted by Antoninus Pius, in the art of ruling. In the former he had learnt, as he records with thankfulness, from his master Diognetus (Medit. i. 6), the temper of incredulity as to alleged marvels, like those of seers and diviners. Under Hadrian and Antoninus Pius he had acquiesced, at least, in a policy of toleration, checking false accusations, requiring from the accusers proof of some other crime than the mere profession of Christianity. It is, therefore, startling to find that he takes his place in the list of persecutors along with Nero and Domitian and Decius. The annals of martyrdom place in his reign the deaths of Justin Martyr at Rome (A.D. 166), of Polycarp at Smyrna (A.D. 167), of Blandina and Pothinus and the other sufferers at Lyons (A.D. 177). The last-named year seems indeed to have witnessed an outburst of popular fury against the new sect, and this could not have been allowed to rage without the emperor's sanction, even if there were no special edicts like those of which Melito speaks (Eus. H. E. iv. 26) directly authorizing new measures of repression. It was accordingly an era of Apologies; Justin had led the way under Antoninus Pius, and the second treatise that bears his name was probably written just before his own martyrdom under Aurelius. To the years 177 and 178 are assigned those which were written by Melito, Tatian, Athenagoras, Apollinaris, and Theophilus, perhaps also that of Miltiades. The causes of this increased rigour are not difficult to trace. (1) The upward progress of Christianity brought its teachers into rivalry with the Stoic philosophers who up to this time, partly for good and partly for evil, had occupied the position of spiritual directors in the families in which there was any effort to rise out of the general debasement. They now found themselves brought into contact with men of a purer morality and a nobler fortitude than their own, and with a strange mysterious power which enabled them to succeed where others failed. Just in proportion, therefore, as the emperor was true to his Stoicism was he likely to be embittered against their rivals. (2) A trace of this bitterness is found in his own Meditations (xi. 3). Just as Epictetus (Arrian, Epict. iv. 7) had spoken of the "counterfeit apathy" which was the offspring not of true wisdom, but "of madness or habit like that of the Galileans," so the emperor contrasts the calm considerate preference of death to life, which he admired, with the "mere obstinacy (παράταξις) of the Christians." "The wise man," he says, "should meet death σεμνῶς καὶ ἀτραγῴδως." The last word has, there seems reason to believe, a special significance. Justin, towards the close of his second Apology, presented to this emperor, had expressed a wish that some one would stand up, as on some lofty rostrum, and "cry out with a tragic voice, Shame, shame on you who ascribe to innocent men the things which ye do openly yourselves. . . . Repent ye, be converted to the ways of purity and wisdom (Μετάθεσθε, σωφρονίσθητε)." If we believe that his acts were in harmony with his words or that what he wrote had come under the emperor's eye, it is natural to see in the words in which the latter speaks so scornfully of the "tragic airs" of the Christians a reference to what had burst so rudely upon his serene tranquillity. (3) The period was one of ever-increasing calamities. The earthquakes which had alarmed Asia under Antoninus were but the prelude to more serious convulsions. The Tiber rose to an unprecedented height and swept away the public granaries. This was followed by a famine, and that by a pestilence, which spread from Egypt and Ethiopia westward. Everywhere on the frontiers there were murmurs of insurrection or invasion. The year 166 was long known as the "annus calamitosus," and it was in that year that the persecution broke out and that Justin suffered. These calamities roused the superstition of the great mass of the people, and a wild fanaticism succeeded to an epicurean atheism. The gods were wroth, and what had roused their anger but the presence of those who denied them? "Christianos ad leones " seemed the remedy for every disaster. The gods might accept that as a piacular offering. On the other hand, the Christians saw in them signs of the coming judgment, and of the end of the world; and now in apocalyptic utterances, now in Sibylline books, uttered, half exultantly, their predictions of the impending woe (cf. Tertull. ad Scap. c. 3). All this, of course, increased the irritation against them to the white heat of frenzy (Milman's Hist. of Christianity, bk. ii. c. 7). They not only provoked the gods, and refused to join in sacrifices to appease them, but triumphed in their fellow-citizens' miseries.
Two apparent exceptions to this policy of repression have to be noticed. (1) One edition of the edict πρὸς τὸ κοινὸν της Ἀσίας, though ascribed by Eusebius (H. E. iv. 13) to Antoninus Pius, purports, as given by him, to come from Aurelius. But the edict is unquestionably spurious, and merely shows the wish of some Christians, at a later stage in the conflict, to claim the authority of the philosopher in favour of his brethren. (2) There is the decree mentioned by Eusebius (H. E. v. 5) on the authority of Tertullian (Apol. c. 5, ad Scap. c. 4, p. 208) and appended to Justin's first Apology, which purports to be addressed to the Senate, informing them how, when he and his army were in danger of perishing for want of water in the country of the Marcomanni, the Christians in his army had prayed to their God, and refreshing rain had fallen for them, and a destroying hail on their enemies, and bidding them therefore to refrain from all accusations against Christians as such, and ordering all who so accused them to be burnt alive. (Cf. Thundering Legion in D. C. B. 4-vol. ed.) The decree is manifestly spurious. An interesting monograph, M. Aurelius Antoninus als Freund und Zeitgenosse des Rabbis Jehudas ben Nasi, by Dr. A. Bodek (Leipz. 1868), may be noticed as maintaining that this emperor is identical with the Antoninus ben Ahasuerus, who is mentioned in the Talmud as on terms of intimacy with one of the leading Jewish teachers of the time. If this be accepted, it suggests another possible element in his scorn of Christianity. G. H. Rendal, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, to Himself, Eng. trans. with valuable Intro. (Lond. 1898).
[E. H. P.]